Fifty years ago Sunday, a brigade of around 1,500 CIA-trained soldiers stormed the beach in Cuba's Bay of Pigs. It was the opening phase of a secret mission to overthrow Fidel Castro and, President John F. Kennedy hoped, halt the spread of communism throughout the world.
Things did not go as planned.
"I think the thing that you have to keep in mind when you ask yourself, 'How did this ever happen?' is the extraordinary fear of communism in the late 50s and early 60s," writer Jim Rasenberger tells NPR's Noah Adams.
In his new book, The Brilliant Disaster, Rasenberger suggests the debacle marked the start of the Vietnam era — before which, "it would have been a fairly skeptical or cynical American who doubted he lived in a country run by competent men, engaged in worthwhile enterprises."
The Bay of Pigs changed that.
"Not only did it appear immoral to many people," Rasenberger says, "but it was also incompetent."
For Kennedy, A Rock And A Hard Place
The plan for a covert, CIA-led overthrow of Fidel Castro was hatched under President Eisenhower, who increasingly saw Castro as aligned with communists in the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower insisted it must remain secret. When John F. Kennedy was elected president and presented with the mission — then still being planned — he agreed.
"He knew that if the American hand showed in this, [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev would then be forced to retaliate," Rasenberger says, leading to all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Kennedy, who had run against Richard Nixon by "beating the Eisenhower administration over the head with Castro," Rasenberger says, could see no way not to press on with the mission.
"He had a lot of doubts about it, a lot of concerns about it, but he never could figure out a way not to do it."
A Plan Awry, And A Tipping Point
The mission, set into motion on April 15, 1961, called for a series of air strikes to take out Castro's defenses first. Then, a brigade of 1,500 Cuban expats would land in Cuba's Bay of Pigs, storm the beach, and spark an overthrow of the Castro regime.
But from the beginning, things did not go well.
The ships that carried the brigade got hung up on coral in the Bay's shallow waters. A series of bombings on Castro's air defenses by Cuban exile B-26s — crucial if the brigade troops on the ground were to invade successfully — missed several of Castro's planes.
But the tipping point, Rasenberger says, may have come on April 16, when John F. Kennedy canceled a second series of air strikes, leaving Castro with air defenses intact and more time to prepare for the troops, which hit the beach on April 17.
"Once those second air strikes were canceled, the game was basically over," Rasenberger says. "The brigade was doomed at that point."
Eduardo Barea, a 25-year-old Cuban exile at the time, would have piloted his B-26 bomber in those air strikes. When the order came through to stop the bomb, "every pilot was surprised," Barea tells NPR. They'd been expecting to help their comrades on the ground launch a successful invasion.
"It was very difficult for me to understand," Barea says. "We never expected that something like that was going to happen."
Without air support, most of the invaders were taken prisoner and held for over a year until the Kennedy administration negotiated their release.
Despite its legacy as one of the biggest American foreign policy disasters in history, Rasenberger says it may have been the best Kennedy could have hoped for. A victory, after all, would have led to a U.S. occupation of Cuba.
"Some people say he got the best-case scenario. He went forward with it, so he looked like he was strong on communism, and yet it failed, so he didn't have to deal with some terrible consequences if it had succeeded."
Those consequences might have looked something like modern-day Iraq, Rasenberger says, or even Libya.
One lesson from the Bay of Pigs, he says: "Don't assume, when we go into another country, that immediately the locals will all come and gather behind our cause."
Another lesson — though Rasenberger says it's too early to accurately apply to Libya — "the cure may be worse than the disease.
"And indeed it was," he says, after the Bay of Pigs. "Castro became far more powerful after the invasion. He became more closely tied to the Soviet Union."
But the most important legacy of the Bay of Pigs may be the simplest, Rasenberger says: Murphy's Law.
"Things are going to go wrong," he says.
For an administration composed of the best and the brightest, as Kennedy's was, "it would be wise for presidents to have few people in their administration more acquainted with things not going well."